Stephen Richards is one of the directors of the UK’s largest furniture trade event, the January Furniture Show – as well as the Manchester Furniture Show, which takes place each July. In this interview, Stephen reveals his background, working philosophies and inspirations.
How did you enter the trade?
I entered the exhibition business in 1986 – and joined the furniture trade in 1990, when I became event director of the Furniture Show at the NEC.
I was relatively young at 32, so believed anything was possible – but it really did feel like there was an enormous opportunity for the show to fulfil its potential at the NEC. The industry was crying out for one big, all-encompassing furniture show to replace the various events that had come and gone before it.
I pulled together a great team and formed some serious advisory groups – we had a retail group as well as an exhibitor group – and together we did great things.
At that time, the show was a sea of shell scheme (with a few notable exceptions), occupying halls 4 and 5, and just pushing into Hall 3. I am sure we made mistakes, but the momentum grew and the industry has to this day an event that is held up in exhibition circles as one of the finest examples of a first-class trade show.
Who was your inspiration?
There wasn’t one particular person – I gained inspiration from lots of positive influences. I had some great line managers as I learnt my craft, and I took a little bit from all of them! I am always inspired by people that do it the hard way – no helping hand, just hard work and recognising opportunities when they come along.
What was your career high point?
In employment, it was probably being responsible for about £50m worth of revenue across 20 events by the time I was 35. Latterly, the NEC role was a big challenge.
However, I think that being able to generate a living from my own activities without being on anyone’s payroll for the last 20 years of a 43-year working life qualifies as a sustained high point.
… and low point?
Probably failing to pull off our London Furniture Show back in 1996 – it was an attempt to run a trade and consumer show together, and it almost worked!
… and the turning point?
That low point after the London Furniture Show was probably also the turning point. I was offered a job back with a big organiser, plus a big salary and all the perks. My wife was pregnant with our first child, so naturally I turned them down and launched the National Incentive Show in Manchester, working for nothing – but this then led to launching the Manchester Furniture Show with [January Furniture Show directors] Laraine [Janes] and Theresa [Raymond], and the rest, as they say, is history.
Describe a typical working day
I am really lucky these days. If I’m not up at the office or on the road, I work mostly from my home office. So I get to have breakfast with the family and walk the dog on the sea wall before commuting down the garden. Like most of us, my day seems to consist of never-ending emails – but I have more thinking time now, which allows me to anticipate problems, and to look forward and visualise what might be possible far more than I could ever do before, and that’s important for any business.
If you had to start over, you’d probably pursue which career?
I always fancied the advertising business – on the agency side. It’s endlessly creative, and if you are lucky can be great fun, I imagine.
What date on the business calendar do you most look forward to?
The third Sunday in January, obviously – the opening day of another January Furniture Show.
What is the most important issue affecting your business right now?
It has to be the precarious nature of the high street. Our show needs visitors, and high street rents, coupled with the ease of starting up online, means fewer furniture store start-ups, and fewer people coming into the business. I guess it’s the same for all areas of retailing – is there a balanced position that can be achieved? I have to believe there is, but are we there yet?
What company do you most look up to?
I will stay outside of furniture for political reasons – so I would say, for its outstanding turnaround in the last 10 years, Jaguar Landrover. How have they managed that?!
What would you most like to change about yourself?
Apart from the ageing process, I would like to be less impulsive –but then, life is too short for caution.
What do you enjoy most about working in the trade?
I have worked in a number of trades, and I have always felt the furniture industry is very straightforward. People tend to tell you how it is, and most people know what they are doing and are passionate about the industry. The exhibitors at the show are no trouble, so show build-up is always a dream compared to other experiences I have had.
Please leave us with a few words of advice …
I have only ever been successful thanks to the people around me. Team work will beat individuality every time, and even a bunch of imperfect individuals can make a great team. Every individual, like wood, has a grain – always work with it for the best results!